It’s a pleasant ten-minute walk from my flat along the stately Mathenesserlaan to the Museumpark where the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, the Kunsthal, the Natural History Museum, the Chabot Museum, the Huis Sonneveld and the Netherlands Architectural Institute are grouped together in a peaceful setting with something for everyone: pleasing landscaping, architectural interest, a fragrant rose garden, a discreet corner for smoking pot, benches for those who like to crisp up in the sun, and skateboarding on the wide open space that hosts outdoor events (next up, open-air cinema). When I arrived in Rotterdam, the area was dug up to allow for the construction of an underground parking lot, and both the NAI and the Erasmus Medical Center, which borders the park on the west side, were busy renovating and building, but now the heavy machinery and the construction workers are gone and with them, the sand and dust and noise. Peace has returned to the gardens in the Museumpark.
Enter Ron Fouchier, a virologist at the Erasmus Medical Center. If you Google his name you can read all about the storm that has been raging around the virological labs at Erasmus MC since September last year. To put it very briefly, Fouchier and his team discovered how the bird flu virus might become air-borne and highly contagious and replicated the process in the lab. When they reported their findings last September, all hell broke loose. As Michael Specter puts it in an article for the New Yorker, “Television talk shows and the Internet pulsated with anxiety.”
The Museum Boijmans van Beuningen was quick to pick up on the controversy with Micro Impact, the first show in the new Design Column series, which is intended to put some art spin on the topics that make the headlines.
The best way to find Micro Impact is to listen for it. As you approach the room, you will hear singing, vaguely reminiscent of Gregorian chants for our time, beautiful but fragmented and disordered. Entering the small space in one of the many tucked-away rooms in the museum building, expecting some video or music installation, your eyes and ears alight on this.
Inside the perspex bubble are five petri dishes containing the microscopic worm Caenorhabditis elegans. A microscope is mounted above each petri dish and the images are sent to the five monitors where you can observe the movements of the worms in real-time. The artist, Matthjis Munnik, wrote a computer programme that translates the movements of C. elegans into sound and named the work Microscopic Opera.
In this short video, Matthijs Munnik explains how it works, what inspired him and how people have reacted.
Next up, microorganisms meet haute couture in Collection Escapism. Iris van Herpen takes her inspiration from the shapes and forms of microorganisms that are only visible with a magnification power of one million. She translates what she finds into meticulous outfits using both traditional material and innovative technologies. For this outfit, the white top is 3D printed polyamide and the skirt is fashioned out of smoked plastic oil sheets. I guess comfort is not uppermost on her mind, but the creation is striking, don’t you think? If microbial haute couture pushes your buttons, there’s lots to explore on her website.
On the wall, behind the piece by van Herpen, there are some meticulously drawn pictures of the sort that used to feature in natural history books. It is not immediately obvious what’s going on in these pictures and, to be honest, they didn’t hold my attention beyond admiring the detailed drawings and pastel color schemes, but when I looked up the project online, I found a fascinating idea. The work is called Growth Assembly and runs with Cambridge University research into the controllable and programmable growth of plants. Briefly, Daisy Ginsberg and Sascha Pohflepp imagine a future where soaring energy prices have turned mass-produced commodities into unaffordable luxuries for anyone but a few super-rich and where synthetic biology will have coded plants to grow products within the natural plant structure. The plants will be harvested for parts, which are then assembled and sold to the consumer. Factory farms will grow licensed products from seeds and global logistics will be handled by the post office delivering packets of seeds.
Intriguing, isn’t it? But to me, the phrase “licensed products” is the most striking element of this scenario. As soon as something is “licensed,” you have “intellectual property rights,” and as soon as someone claims property rights, you get “piracy,” and not far behind, “policing.”
Obviously, the curators and I think alike because Micro Impact also features this short video, which presents a novel policing method for detecting illegally manipulated plants. Fascinating stuff!
I think the reason this video is so convincing is that it plays on the current climate of security fears, increased powers given to the police and amazing technological advances in DNA sequencing, biometrics, spy drones and other things that were the stuff of sci-fi not too long ago. Thoughts?